Petulant and cocky yet surprisingly likeable, Delsin Rowe is a much better fit for Infamous’s brand of empowered chaos than the forgettable Cole McGrath. But while Rowe, voiced and acted by Troy Baker, has more onscreen spark than his predecessor, he represents just one of the changes in what Sucker Punch promises is a comprehensive overhaul for its superpowered series.
The core premise remains much the same, however. Despite McGrath’s sacrifice at the end of 2011’s Infamous 2, which saved the lives of millions of humans – of the two possible endings, this is the one Sucker Punch has chosen as canon – the government views Conduits as a threat, and has set up the Department of Unified Protection (DUP) in an attempt to control the growing populace of superhumans. Rowe, a graffiti artist already set against the DUP’s agenda, discovers that he is not only a Conduit, but one able to absorb the powers of others.
After which his abilities are drawn from the environment, giving players access to an even broader toolset than before, with different powers proving more or less effective depending on the situation. Only two have been unveiled so far: Smoke is a destructive, freewheeling ability that allows Rowe to pass through fencing, leap through the air and cook his enemies; Neon offers greater agility and precision, as well as the ability to run up walls. It looks to work better as a ranged tool rather than a stealth one, though, given that it makes you luminesce.
In fact, Second Son is much more colourful than its predecessors in every respect. The murky palettes of Empire City and New Marais have been replaced with a much brighter, sharper one in Second Son’s 1080p Seattle. The DUP’s characteristic yellow-accented livery makes its soldiers and equipment stand out against the lush greenery of Sucker Punch’s sunny take on the Emerald City. Performances are brighter, too, thanks to the work of lead technical director Spencer Alexander, whose CV includes Tron: Legacy. Combined with naturalistic deliveries from the cast of actors, led by The Last Of Us and Arkham City star Baker, cutscenes and in-game dialogue are now far from the ordeal Infamous and its sequel subjected us to.
And apart from a strange jumping animation, both Rowe and the game’s assorted cast of NPCs move much more convincingly, too – Rowe in particular switches fluidly between animation cycles as he leaps and sprints about. “The team that has worked on that is a combination of tech and art,” says Brian Fleming, Sucker Punch founder and Second Son’s producer. “Our artists needed to become more technical and the technologists really needed to understand the art better for even little things like how people turn themselves.”
The effect of blending this additional realism with Rowe’s powers is striking, and lends real weight to a series that has often struggled to feel like more than just a toybox. Another important revision is enemy AI: DUP goons will threaten Rowe before opening fire and run for cover when overwhelmed.
“The whole system was rewritten after Infamous 2,” Fleming says. “It was an enormous undertaking and made the first year of the project kind of a pain in the ass, because the enemies were behaving very badly. But we’re finally over that hump and now we’re spending time polishing and improving those encounters and giving enemies more specific things to do. We spent a lot of time watching people playing the game, learning how the AI can be improved. It’s not one quantum improvement, it’s [lots of] little improvements, and they all add up to the combat being a marked improvement over our previous games.”
Like McGrath, Rowe will be able to take diverging moral paths through the game. How darker choices will affect his relationship with his policeman brother, Reggie, is unclear at this point, and it remains to be seen if Sucker Punch can maintain the quality of storytelling we’ve seen so far throughout the whole game, irrespective of our choices.
One thing’s for sure: Second Son is a handsome prospect and will be our next opportunity to see what PS4 can do when it’s pushed. As a Sony-owned studio, Sucker Punch is more able than most to focus its attention on a single generation, and the upshot is a game that won’t be hobbled by a need to run within PS3’s RAM limitations.
“Our studio really prizes focus,” says Fleming. “We’re a one-team studio; we’ve always been that. Anything that steals focus from that is something that we’re trying to eliminate, whether that’s starting a second team to work on another game, or working on another platform simultaneously. All of those things compete for our focus, so we’re very driven by the ability to isolate anything that’s a distraction from what we’re trying to do.”